I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.
Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.
I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.
When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:
‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’
‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.
The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.
I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.
This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.
On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.
Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.
Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.
Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.
And that makes a difference.
Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.